A Bus Oriented Transit Future

The Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance’s campaign for a dedicated source of transit dollars in Cook County, Transit Future, is impressive in its scope and its ability to present a program of transit improvements with a realistic funding mechanism. It incorporates a variety of potential projects from the Red Line South extension to more ambitious projects like a Brown Line west extension. What I don’t like about it though is how much it (publicly) prioritizes rail lines over improvements at all levels. By that I mean buses.

What I like about LA’s transit system is how it has successfully created a brand to represent the four levels of bus services provided by LA Metro: Metro Liner (BRT), Metro Rapid (regular service express, limited buses), Metro Local (regular service local buses), and Metro Express (express buses). This is a model I would like to see employed in Chicago and combined with more modest rail investments compared to what is outlined in Transit Future.

Using CNT’s and Active Trans’ idea for a dedicated funding system, I think the CTA and Cook County could create such a system easily and rapidly. This, I think, would be a more impactful first step in dramatically improving travel times on transit (anywhere from 20%-50% decreases in trip times by some of my own estimates) and drawing more people onto transit, which in its own right is a key step to increasing transit mode share.

Doing so would require deciding on what such a bus system would look like.

I propose one with three levels of service: local service, ART (arterial rapid transit) like that proposed by Pace, and BRT and/or LRT (depending on the route).

Local service would run identically to what is provided now perhaps with some enhancements (better shelters or priority signaling at busy intersections). The ART routes would be like the type proposed by Pace. They would include priority signaling along the entire route (keeping lights green until buses pass), prepaid boarding when possible, bumped out stops (so buses don’t have to leave the main traffic lanes), fewer stops (every 1/4 mile versus every 1/8 mile like local bus routes), and high frequency all day long (every 10-12 minutes). BRT would be a step up from this including higher capacity buses, dedicated lanes, prepaid boarding at all stops, and even higher arrival frequency (every 7-10 minutes). In some cases light rail (LRT) could be developed instead of BRT, particularly on east-west routes, which aren’t as well-developed as north-south routes.

Fully building out an ART and BRT/LRT system at the scale I propose would cost on average $2.5 million per mile for ART, $33 million per mile for BRT, and $57 million per mile for LRT. Or, more specifically: $4 billion for 68 miles of LTR, $1 billion for 30 miles of BRT, and $450 million for 180 miles of ART. In total, this is about $5.5 billion in bus and arterial improvements.

Combined, additional rail projects (Yellow Line north extension, Orange Line south extension, Silver Line O’Hare-Midway, and Green Line east extension) cost cumulatively about $5 billion for 18 miles of new rail lines. Additionally, the conversion of the Metra Electric South Chicago and Blue Island Branches would add about $200 million to this total sum.

All together, this set of improvements costs roughly $10 billion, half of what the CNT/Active Trans Transit Future plan calls for. Part of this is because it cuts out a number of rail projects, such as the high-profile Red Line south extension (approximate cost $2 billion). These would be supplemented by better bus service, or specialized routes (such as a Devon Avenue special bus service to O’Hare). Another part of this is because Transit Future would (could?) include funding for projects like improvements to Union Station, which surely pushes up the official price estimates.

The Transit Future plan doesn’t discount the role of buses in creating a world-class transit system, but I do think it underplays that role. Look at London: buses in the British capital are just as important and iconic as the Tube, and if you’ve ever used them you know they’re efficient and vital for ensuring the efficient movement of people throughout the metropolis. That is why I do put an emphasis on arterial bus-based transit with some LRT; the majority of transit riders in Chicago take the bus and not the ‘L’ and thus it makes sense to look at how to improve how most riders get around and improve the services most residents have access to. Showiness can only go so far if people aren’t being served in real life.

It would also improve speeds throughout the entire transit system: an LRT on Western from Lincoln Square to the Western Orange Line would cut that trip almost in half end-to-end from 50 to 30 minutes. A BRT on Ashland Avenue from Irving Park Road to 95th Street would go from 1 hour, 45 minutes to an hour. Even a modest improvement such as making the Pulaski 58 bus an ART would cut the 16.5 mile trip from Peterson to 79th street from 1 hour, 50 minutes to 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Such changes are less likely to draw wide-eyed commentary, but they’re practical and would collectively represent a huge improvement in how people get around the city. They would make the transit network we already have a more reasonable option for more residents and hopefully act as a cheaper catalyst to bigger improvements.

The map attached shows what those improvements look like. This includes the above mentioned services, as well as what I called the Silver Line (an ‘L’ parallel to Cicero Avenue from O’Hare to Midway) and a western branch to the conversion of the Metra Electric to an ‘L’ service. The two branches of the Gold Line would be supplemented by the Metra Electric commuter service to University Park and South Shore Line to South Bend.


The new ‘L’ lines are depicted with the boldest lines, BRT and LRT are shown with heavy red lines (not specified which routes would use which mode, but emphasis is on LRT for east-west routes), blue lines are ART routes, and grey lines are local buses. Purple lines are either specialty routes or mixed service of some sort. 


Improvements to North Side Transit


Coming home, I’ve had the chance to see Chicago with some fresh perspectives. I have been ruminating a lot on how transportation could be improved on the city’s North/Northwest Side where I live. So far, these are some ideas I’ve come up with. None is particularly innovative, but I think they would all go a long way in improving how people get to and from and around this part of the city.


Example of BPL in Washington, DC that preserves one parking lane. Source: greatergreaterwashington.org.

  1. Irving Park BRT or LTR: Although BRT is a cheaper choice, any discussion of BRT or LTR in Chicago needs to look at east-west corridors; getting into the Loop and moving north-south is significantly easier than moving east-west. East-west routes would significantly improve transit for commuters and day-to-day users alike, especially by connecting residents on west side neighborhoods with the lakefront. Irving Park Road is a valuable street for this upgrade: it’s wide enough for dedicated lanes, provides direct transfers to the Blue and Brown Lines and UP Northwest Metra. The downside is the current Irving Park bus (80) doesn’t directly connect to the Red Line and it’s ridership is modest at about 14,000 weekday boardings indicating the route might not have the best ridership potential. The population density along the route, mostly above 9,000/m2, is a healthy density to support transit use however. Better service would likely draw greater ridership and support greater economic investment in neighborhoods like Old Irving Park, Portage Park, Six Corners, and North Center. Estimated Cost: $100-110 million (BRT); $500 million plus (LTR)

    Foster Ave BPLs

    Map showing path of proposed Foster Ave. BPL from Milwaukee Avenue to the lakefront with other trail projects and proposals shown. Purple paths show segments that could be built as shared streets.

  2. Reorganize North Central Avenue Bus Routes: North from the Jefferson Park Transit Center four bus routes use along Central Avenue from Milwaukee Avenue to Lehigh and Devon Avenues and north. The number of routes would suggest this is a strong transit corridor, but the route’s destinations and frequency and the location of stops only make it appear busy on a map. Reorganizing the routes that go through this corridor, coordinating services, improving frequencies, and consolidating stops would go a long way to improving how people get to and from the Northwest Side and North Suburbs:
    • Eliminate Pace Bus 225: The bus has low ridership that’s falling and basically goes nowhere.
    • Eliminate Pace Bus 226: This bus connects Jefferson Park to Des Plaines via Oakton. It is not a totally impractical route, but Jefferson Park is more quickly connected to Des Plaines via the UP Northwest Metra (more Metra service would make sense though). Eliminate this route and introduce a Oakton bus that goes east-west, transfer free from Des Plaines to Rogers Park on Chicago’s North Side, replacing the two buses that run on Oakton now and require a transfer at Lincoln in Skokie to travel the entire street.
    • Reroute 85A, Part 1: The current 85A loops around Wildwood to and from Jefferson Park and back. Rather, it could head north on Caldwell as it does now and continue via Waukegan Road to Downtown Glenview or The Glen.
    • Reroute 85A, Part 2: Like on Oakton, there is no single, transfer-free route between to Old Orchard in Skokie via Downtown Skokie from Jefferson Park. A true North Central bus route would run the entire distance of Central/Niles Center Road between Jefferson Park, Edgebrook, Niles, Downtown Skokie and Old Orchard connecting the Blue and Yellow Lines and the UP Northwest and Milwaukee North Metra lines.
    • Reroute 84: Depending on the frequency of the two new/rerouted buses mentioned above, it may or may not also be worthwhile to terminate the Peterson 84 bus at Jefferson Park and not at Caldwell/Devon in Edgebrook. The bus would follow the same route, but allow for transfer-free connections from Edgebrook, Sauganash, and North Park, to the Blue Line and UP Northwest. This would provide direct connections between the Red and Blue Lines at Jefferson Park on three bus routes.

      North Side Transit Improvements

      This map shows the collective whole of proposed improvements as well as complete Pace Pulse proposal. Red = reorganized bus routes; Green = extended 84 Peterson bus; Orange = Lawrence and Devon ART; Sky Blue = Foster BPL; Purple (dashed) = Other Pace Pulse

  3. Devon and Lawrence Avenues ART: Lawrence desperately needs transit improvements. Sadly, the street probably isn’t appropriate for BRT. However, Pace, Chicago’s suburban bus service’s ART program (arterial rapid transit) provides a model to continue to improve service on Lawrence. This model should also be expanded to Devon from the Loyola Red Line to the O’Hare Transportation Center to create a high(er) quality direct connection to the airport from the city’s Far North Side.
    • To improve service on Lawrence, an important corridor between Jefferson Park and Uptown, which connects the Red, Brown and Blue Lines as well as the UP North and UP Northwest, a road diet should be included as part of developing an ART bus route (i.e. curb bump-outs at intersections and pedestrian islands where possible), as well as bumped out bus stops, consolidation of bus stops, prepaid boarding (like BRT, but without dedicated lanes), and signal prioritization.
    • Along Devon Avenue, much improvement comes from simply creating a bus route from Rogers Park to O’Hare in addition to the neighborhood circulator 155 Devon bus. While the same level of improvements along Lawrence might not be necessary on Devon, designing the route with stops only every half mile, prepaid boarding at heavily used stops, and signal prioritization at highly congested intersections would go a long way in keeping travel times down to approximately 30 minutes. For perspective, an 11 A.M. transit trip from Loyola to O’Hare takes close to 90 minutes; the Pace Dempster bus takes 50 minutes to cover the same amount of ground as a Devon bus would by comparison.
    • A Devon ART could be supplemented by extending the Devon 155 bus from its current western terminus at Kedzie/Devon to Harlem during weekday rush-hour.

Because Metra, you suck.

I live a 12 minute walk, 7 minute bus trip (door-to-door), 5 minute bike ride, and 4 minute drive from my local Northwest Side Metra stop. And that access means nothing to me. Because Metra, you suck.

Metra has proven itself continuously useless for most Chicagoans. This is not news. It is very, very old news. Unless you’re a suburban commuter working a standard 9-5 Mondays through Fridays Metra plays little to no role in most of our lives, nor can it play one in most cases anyhow.

And the very group of people responsible for this are the people running Metra. As one friend put it they’re basically a bunch of overgrown boys who like playing with the largest toy train set in the world. The solutions to Metra’s woes, the methods of making the system serve the entire region better, and by virtue of that to gain greater ridership are well-known and widely discussed. The Metra board doesn’t seem to care all that much though and just ignores any solid suggestion.

Because Metra, you suck.

Metro North runs every 20-30 minutes to and from Manhattan, Go Transit in Toronto is working towards similar frequencies. In Vienna, commuter trains cut through the city center for transfer-free crosstown trips, and Caltrain is electrifying with the hopes making trains faster and increase frequency to 6 times an hour (or, every 10 minutes, about as frequent as some L lines) between San Francisco and San Jose.

Metra is expanding doing routine maintenance sold as capital projects and redesigning the interiors of its cars.

Trains won’t run faster or more frequently. Trains won’t be any more accessible (if you’ve never ridden Metra, you can’t role a wheelchair onto trains). New lines won’t be added. It’ll be more of the same.

There is no defined plan for the future.

Metra doesn’t use Ventra, the fare card that’s suppose to integrate fare payment on CTA trains and buses and Pace buses. To use Ventra you need the app. To use the app you need a smart phone. Metra has resisted for quite some time. This is “progress”.

Again, because Metra, you suck.

But it doesn’t matter all that much, Metra’s trains don’t get you to where you’re going if you’re in the city much faster than the bus or L. And it certainly doesn’t get you there any cheaper.

Fare zones don’t match the CTA. A trip from Evanston to the Loop on the L will cost you $2.25 and an hour of your time or 48 minutes at rush hour. To get to the same place in 43 minutes you can take Metra. That’ll cost you $5.00 though. The distance is the same.

Because Metra, you suck.

A $2 billion investment will extend the Red Line L from 95th Street to 130th Street on the South Side. The Metra Electric already goes there. But it runs only once an hour or so. And the cost: $5.00 or $5.25 depending on the branch. For less than $200 million Metra could make a rapid transit service on the Metra Electric and save everybody another $1.8 billion by making the Red Line extension redundant. 

But Metra has to wait and see. It’ll think about it. It might not be a practical move. There might not be demand, because the Metra Electric doesn’t pass anything important. McCormack Place and the Museum Campus, Soldier Field and the University of Chicago, the Obama Library and Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago State University and Pullman. These are places with no value.

Let’s not even discuss Crossrail Chicago or the fact that only Metra line to stop at O’Hare (the North Central Service) only runs 10 trains a day per direction, rush hour only, and none on the weekend.

Because Metra, you suck.

Maybe some day the massive web that is Chicago’s commuter rail system will be rethought in a manner that is both practical and useful.

But I won’t hold my breath. I’ll surely suffocate by then.

Because Metra, you suck.